“It is the one of the toughest and, at times, most brutal prisons in America,” said Doran Larson, professor of English, in introducing the Attica symposium on Sept. 16. Even the guards at Attica Correctional Facility joke that they, too, are condemned to “25 to life sentences, but in 8-hour shifts.” The inmates are allowed “one roll of toilet paper per month” and “one shower per week,” and they must contend with abuse that is “arbitrary and unchecked,” Larson said.
That’s the condition today – after major reforms were mandated for the prison system. As for before? It was one week and 40 years ago that the prisoners of Attica famously rioted in protest of their dismal living conditions.
“Attica was, is, an icon,” said historian Dr. Scott Christianson, “…a symbol of pent-up rage… a window into the troubled prison system. It should never be forgotten.” Hewent on to say that “Attica changed the prison system more than anything else in the 21st century… and the whole truth has still not yet come out.”
The late ‘60s/early ‘70s were characterized by cultural turbulence, explained Christianson: the credibility gap, racial divides, the horrors of Vietnam, and the uprising of the sexual liberation movement. “Revolution was in the air,” he said, and Attica was no exception: the prison, too, was “ripe for revolt.”
The Attica prison was “already overcrowded” in 1971. (In his introduction, Larson noted that in 1971 the American prison system constituted “merely” 200,000 inmates in comparison to today’s count of 2.3 million.) Christianson explained that the inmates of Attica were poorly treated, and often beaten unfairly by the guards; furthermore, the inmates had no means to officially express their complaints. Tensions surrounding race often reached critical levels, bursting into occasional physical conflicts. (In the later panel discussion, former inmate Melvin Marshall detailed his own eyewitness accounts of brutality at the hands of the prison guards.) Christianson explained that "all members of the staff were white" and “most prisoners were people of color.”
On the morning of September 9, 1971, the riot began. “Some prisoners managed to overpower officers,” said Christianson. “The gate broke, and prisoners flooded into other sectors.” He noted that eventually the metal shop was overrun with inmates, who were able to create makeshift weapons out of pipes and planks. Soon they made hostages of members of the prison staff. The inmates were going to plead their collective case and make their voices heard – whatever the cost. The hostages were their “bargaining chip in the standoff with the state.” The inmates demanded improved living conditions, as well as access to the news media in order to broadcast their struggle. “It was a reasonable list of things that should have been already addressed,” said Christianson.
The riot lasted for four days. On 9:46 a.m. on September 13, officers unleashed tear gas into the prison and then began blindly shooting at the crowds within. Christianson noted that once the violent storm subsided, 10 hostages and 29 inmates were dead; 89 more were injured.
N.Y. State Corrections Commissioner Brian Fischer spoke next, elaborating upon some of Christianson’s points and also detailing the aftermath of the riots. Fischer noted that, in storming the facility on Sept. 13, the troopers had not blindly riddled the crowds with bullets; some acts of violence were, in fact, partly calculated: there were instances in which inmates had been shot in the face, at point blank range. Some troopers were even equipped with shotguns. There was no doubt that “excessive violence” had been used. And despite the overwhelming number of casualties, not a single police officer was ever tried for violence. There was a single case of “reckless endangerment” but it was soon dropped. Earlier Christenson had noted that, on the contrary, the convictions brought upon the inmates added up to 1,289 crimes and about 50,000 years worth of penalties.
Nevertheless, Fischer explained, conditions have indeed improved at Attica and at other facilities since the time of the riots. “New York maintains the richest staff/inmate ratio,” he noted.
A panel discussion then took place, with Fischer, Christianson, historian Theresa Lynch, and former inmate Melvin Marshall responding to audience questions.
To the question of whether the media was effective in covering the event at the time, Lynch answered that it was, in fact, the local media (and not the “big names”) that picked up the pieces of the story most efficiently. She even mentioned an instance when a local reporter phoned in crucial information about the riots through a shoddy payphone in the back of a bar.
In response to the question of how poverty affects rate of incarceration, Fischer answered that it is a fallacy to consider impoverishment as the primary cause of most crime; rather it is the constant “lack of opportunity” in life that more directly correlates with eventually being incarcerated. It is not necessarily the lack of money itself, he reiterated, but that desperate individuals often must carry out desperate acts.
When asked whether he felt any dissonance when confronted with “outside” interpretations of the riots, Marshall explained that, while racism was certainly a pertinent issue, the Attica riots did not stem from racism directly. In fact, the inmates had banded together, despite their differences, to form a sort of brotherhood. They were all fighting for the same cause, and they hoped to achieve their goal as peacefully as possible. “We never meant to hurt anyone in that prison,” said Marshall.
The symposium was sponsored by the English department and the Levitt Public Affairs Center.